What makes an individual turn to crime? Is it desperation? Might it be the promise of ill-gotten wealth, or could it be the lure of forbidden intrigue? Why are some so successful at deception while others fail their first efforts? Two recent biographies provide fascinating glimpses into the lives of dedicated criminals. Though their lives were played out in different worlds and different time periods, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter and Eugene-Francois Vidocq shared many traits.
Vidocq was born during the latter part of the 18th century in an unsettled France. Predicted to lead a “stormy career” by the midwife who delivered him, Vidocq seems to have done everything in his power to do just that. James Morton, author of “The First Detective,” asserts that crime came naturally to the young boy. When asked to deliver bread by his father who was a baker, the lad mastered the theft of small change. When he later joined the military, Vidocq developed talents for temporary desertion and womanizing. When his acts of crime came to the attention of law enforcement, he became an outstanding forger, claimed a new identity, and mastered the art of prison escape.
The many talents of Vidocq had come to the attention of police for some time. Eventually, he was recruited by them to act as a spy and facilitate the arrest of others who shared his talents. Always given to flamboyancy, Vidocq took up his new job with a passion that included intricate disguises, such as the appearance of an aged well-to-do man, which allowed him easy access to his prey. He was soon supervising his own network of agents that arrested an amazing 811 criminals in one year. As early as the 1830s, he had established the world’s first detective agency, though its methods were often questionable. The rest of Vidocq’s career was dogged by both admiration and scandal in equal measure.
Morton’s book is wonderfully entertaining, as Vidocq clearly lived a rich and colorful existence. The author reminds us that Vidocq had famous friends, and that the tales he shared were woven into the fiction of both Balzac and Hugo. There is even a Vidocq Society, a law enforcement team that targets unsolved cold cases. Vidocq’s reputation has evoked the fame he always sought.
For crime with a more contemporary flair, consider the case of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter. His is not exactly a household name, but perhaps readers might be more familiar with his alias, Clark Rockefeller, the name with which he managed to convince others that he was a member of the famous American family.
Mark Seal’s new book, “The Man in the Rockefeller Suit,” is an incredible tale of a brilliant man’s plot to provide himself with the life he felt he had always deserved. Born in a small German village in 1961, Christian grew up in a household that catered to his every need. Childhood friends remembered him as someone who liked to play elaborate games of role playing.
A few years later, Christian had the much desired opportunity to travel to America. When he ran out of funds, he contacted his parents for help, and they quickly supplied cash to replace his “missing luggage.” When he feared he might have to return to Germany, he quickly married a young lady in order to obtain permanent status. Shortly after that, he selected a more American-sounding name and became Christopher Mountbatten Chichester, soon exploiting a non-existent connection to a famous old family with the same surname. From there, it was off to a dizzying round of other aliases, such as Christopher Crowe and finally Clark Rockefeller. In a similar advancement of fortune, he sampled different careers for which his intelligent answers to interview questions covered a dearth of skills, thus opening the doors to careers as Wall Street investor, film expert and even art connoisseur.
What is intriguing about this book is the extent to which one man was able to construct so much life experience from nothing. Also fascinating are the lengths to which newly acquired friends and lovers were willing to believe what was sometimes laughably outlandish.
Both books offer us complex tales of elaborate deceivers, and perhaps that’s what makes these stories of interest: we have a curiosity about those for whom lies are second nature.
Marcia Allen is the technical services and collections manager at the Manhattan Public Library.